I remember her smile like it was yesterday. She always smiled. She was tall and very beautiful. The look on her eyes was like paradise, always mesmerizing, always kind, always tender, always love. Her name was Selena and she was loved by so many. I share her story today, not to grumble, but as a reminder that research for me is people. The passion I feel for research has names and faces that I dare not forget and her story was my first experience at mental health trauma, turned domestic violence, turned suicide. We watched this in real time. We tolerated it too, with assumptions that it would go away over time. Selena’s life was cut short by someone else’s mental health issues and we are left to wonder, what more could’ve we have done.
So I write today, as a reminder that the world is truly an unkind place, people are dealing with a lot, and the familiar can be life threatening. My own awareness of being a researcher and experiencing the ramifications of what happens when evidence is not translated in real world settings is of interest to me. It may seem like we can never help everyone, I know. It may seem like research is uncaring, I know. It may also feel like we are only in it for ourselves. I know too, and agree that there are miles to go before research can truly be for the people. But we can try. I am convinced that if we do our part to ensure that evidence-based research is translated to real-world settings, then there would be no more stories like that of Selena and I would be celebrating her light, her life today and not reminiscing on all that life took from us. So it’s vital for me to write this to remind all of us that research is people and we should care for it, be vigilant and do all in our power to ensure that it remains that way. I also love and miss you Selena and may your soul continue to sleep in God’s bosom. Amen
To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream, wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true.
I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like.
This is what striving looks like and don’t you ever, ever, give up on you…”
I was blown away by these words sang and spoken by the great Sheryl Lee Ralph at the Emmy’s yesterday. I met her once, in person in undergrad when I attended a leadership program in Philadelphia and I was mesmerized. Anyone that has come in contact with her, ultimately feels like you are in the presence of royalty, a queen. Watching her acceptance sang and spoken yesterday brought great joy to my soul. This is one deserved award for a very brilliant and powerful woman and I hope her words will inspire you as it did for me.
There is a part of a grant, more poignant to me these days. It’s the part that keeps me up every night. The part that keeps me restless. The part often hidden. The part that anchors me. The part too that absorbs everything and transports me to new heights. The part worthy of digging. The part that helps me convey my dreams. The part often difficult to clarify. They part that moves in multiple directions. The part that is my source of everything. It is my origin, my seed, my beginning, my once upon a time, my core, my foundation, my essence, my base, my fundamental, my most important aspect of the grant. All parts of a grant are important. But this part, like a tree, makes me cry. I am like a tree planted by water, sending out roots to the water. I am not afraid of heat. I always stay green. No rain, no worries. I keep beating fruit. I keep putting my trust in him. I am a grant writer because of the significance section. The significance section is where all my energy for a grant comes from. Find your significance, get a sense of its root, it’s foundation, and then go change the world to a point.
In a little over a year, now, our life as we knew it came tumbling down. We called her Angie or Angi and to know her was to know life. I am reminded again, that death should never have the final say. Not when those alive can continue the story of a live well lived. One that became a blessing, a symbol of persistence, and collaboration laced with empathy, though the pain of loss of her physical presence lingers. Since her death, I have been writing notes to her. I wrote other things too, like grants and stories and everything that would enable the pain to lessen. Yesterday, I submitted the 4th grant in her memory.
Cervical cancer came knocking furiously at my door in the summer of 2021 and since then I have been answering the call. Two things are clear to me: No woman should die from cervical cancer. And we must eliminate it period. It helps that there are polices for elimination. The 90-70-90 strategy for example which calls for 90% of girls vaccinated, 70% of women screened and 90% of women with positive results linked to treatment. The fact that such a policy with evidence-based tools exists infuriates me. The fact that we also know what to do about cervical cancer also makes me angry. Her death could have been prevented. I get it now. It’s the reason why I keep writing anything that would make her living more memorable.
I personally bear responsibility for her death, blame too. I could have asked more questions, checked in more often and maybe, she would have disclosed this in passing. I will never know why she kept this as a secret, not just from me but her mother. I will never know why she didn’t trust the health system long enough to truly take all the symptoms she was experiencing seriously. I only have questions, many that I know I will never have answers for now that she is gone. But for tomorrow and, beyond, I am willing to begin with trust, will to begin with listening, willing to learn and hopefully willing to work with any one to lead a concrete and path-breaking strategy focused on cervical cancer elimination. I expect the struggle to come. Many have warned us of it. But I close with this, at least generations will know we struggled, we did it our way too, so no woman would die from something so preventable. I have been dreading writing anything on the one year anniversary of your passing Angi. Dreading it because I’ll rather hear you say my name or ask about the kids or just simply chat about makeup or anything else your heart desires. So these little notes are all I have with the hope that someday, someone will asked how you died and I will be quick to say, ooh but you lived. You lived.
Note on desire:
A long desire. To see and be. Another encounter. Longer than the first. Two eyes locked. Or lips talked. These notes are for you. Though dead but living. Something tried. Your cervix, a thing. Follow its form. Learn it’s lines. Then see you. It takes a long time to see. Even longer to be.
Note on Something so small:
They need to know your name. Not the way you died. Not the cervix that caused you to die. Not the pain we fail to hide. Not the tears we still shed inside. About how something so small, can kill an Angel with all its might.
Note on Seed:
I will find you again. Not like a stalk , but a seed. Death is undeserving of you. Life resembles a birds foot. Only that we chose to soar, choose to fly above the pain your cervix caused. We know pain. But we also know life. And return to you not with fury, but with force, not when your death planted this seed.
Note on She lived:
I imagine someone will ask one day, how did Angi die? I will remind them again, of how she lived. How in life, she personified all our hopes and vision. For a better recognition of what the public envisions. For their health, like their life. We will neither reject nor denounce her cervix. Not when it reminds us to be careful. Reminds us to remember the power of endless beginnings. Reminds us to bear a responsibility to something. Or one day someone will ask the same question, wanting to know too, how we died or lived.
The news of the Queens death came to me yesterday in the middle of work. I paused to immediately reflect on the number 70 and the age 25. Here was a woman who ruled her land for over 70 years, a land she inherited at the age of 25. Legacies are built this way, young and over a long period of time. Like many though, I also tried to imagine all the things that legacy carries, the good, the bad, the unspoken, the hidden, the hurdles, the joy, the pain, and whatever may personify love. Such a legacy, one built over 70 years includes all of this and more, many in full view for all to see and many we will never know. Independence also immediately came to mind as images of what happened when African countries, like Ghana, Nigeria asked for their independence under her watch. I imagine those conversations were not easy, probably disturbing and ultimately met with agreement. To also rule over that legacy kept me both numb and uneasy about her passing. Places we call home have a history that includes the Queen’s legacy, a history that is often told from one point of view to the detriment of other points of view.
So yesterday all the unknown stories about this 70 year legacy came into my mind like a flood. They say when an old person dies, a library dies with them and truly I felt like a trillion libraries died with the Queen yesterday. I still have questions, some I know the answers will not be easy, some I know will never be known. But for all her legacy, how she kept all this intact is my keep for today. That and what is your legacy and what are you doing to keep it whether 2 years or 70 years later. Are you also speaking things unspeakable to your situation, reveling in the joys and hurdles of life, or will your story, like your legacy die the moment you depart? These questions are among the reasons why I ask anyone I know to try to keep something about themselves, their way, so their libraries remain, long after they are gone. The full picture of your life will never truly be known, but at least you will have a say is what is to be told about you, when words fail you.
For me, I have been writing for two years, the only way I can. I call it my ‘What’ll keep.’ Part reflections, part poetry, part notes, some little, some long, but all worthy of being kept. I began this list as a form of detour from the trauma of homeschooling a child on the spectrum during a global pandemic. I wanted to give a sense of the beauty, the hurdles, the joy, the truth about life as a mother and life as being black and female in academia. I wanted to also reclaim my essence beyond the narrow confines of academic world view.
See, I am more than whatever academic paper you will read about me. I have always know this. I also know my role within academia, what to do and not do, all in the name of survival. I wanted to take all the pieces of me, those known and unknown, those I am discovering and uncovering, every single thing complicated and uncomplicated about my world and give them a space to breathe, all on their own. My one mission was to give attention to all aspects of my life that are often hidden, but yet central to what I do as a parent and professor. I also called it finding my light.
I have been in darkness for too long. You will, if all you use is the master’s language. So I sought other styles, created this space, just so all of me could flourish as I wanted. This blog will always be the best gift I gave to myself and my career, two years ago. That I continue to celebrate this recalibration of my career is no small feat. It may all seem like a long list of things to keep. It’s intentional. It may seem disjointed, not connected as finely as any introduction, methods, result or discussion section would suggest. It’s intentional. It may also seem like I’m unproductive from an academic standpoint when all my energy is spent on few words or long essays that I can’t even cite on my CV. That too is intentional. It was never for my CV. Never too for academia even though it has so many academic undertones.
The truth is that it was for that divergent part of my brain, the part that knows our worth and refuses for us to be boxed in one corner or described as such as such, the part that loves writing, grant writing in particularly, the part to that would rather write and fail than never ever write a grant again. For that part to flourish, then it would need a break every now and then and this list of things to keep have been the perfect gift to me. I am in awe of all I have written down in 2 years. In awe too of how writing in this way keeps giving and giving to my intellectual life.
It’s been 2 years of relentless pursuit of something to keep and this fearless unearthing of all I choose to keep, my way, is the clarity with life, that I never knew my soul needed. I truly appreciate the grace each keep offers. They are my legacy, my words, my way. Here is to two years down and many more to go. Happy Anniversary.
My dreams keep dreaming. As if no ending is allowed. As if only poetry will do. As if all the alternating stress, those that pass unknown, those things light and heavy I embrace, everything they bring, like air, are worthy, profound, like breathing, this air of new dreams again.
And so we hurry, back to our sweet spot again. Only this time without force again. Back to our sleek covers again. Those soft and flurry. Those blue like skies and light like stars. All of them keen on letting us go. Keen on starting this journey again. Keen on making our dreams take meaning, again and again, like the sound of the winds blowing, like the murmurs of leaves blowing. Our hearts are full and glowing. Our dreams keep birthing new dreams again. I keep marching steadily to this beat again.
It’s only the second week of the second month of this new school year and already, I feel blessed. To think that my bold ideas are going to come to light soon, with funding too, keeps me on my toes and dreaming. The same day I got news for another one, well, we submitted another one. We can’t stop now, not when he calls us, not when he leads and we follow. My story is one David and Goliath in the making. I came across failed applications to university positions I applied to years ago. Back when I thought all I had to do was apply, all I had to do was try, and somehow, life would make sense. There were some places I dared not look into, an application for a position at Dartmouth comes to mind. There were some I thought I would get. Teacher’s College, was one I thought would make the Big Apple my oasis. Of course, there were many I didn’t get. I read all of them with vigor again, just in awe of what I envisioned for my career and hoped that some one, would take a chance on me. Many didn’t. But we kept dreaming.
Then I remembered all the grants I once wrote dreaming for a career in research, dreaming to one day do it my way. Many also failed. But what brings these 2 memories for me today is this ideas of dreams. My imaginations for health are wild and often not mainstream. I was never supposed to be in academia. It wasn’t the plan. I was supposed to be a medical doctor and lawyer and somehow cook food and well write fiction books. I gave up on medicine early, didn’t get into the law school I wanted (I really took the LSAT and applied), tried to cook my way through my dissertation and failed and still waiting for the day I call myself a fiction writer. None of the initial dreams I had for myself panned out, and so I did what was next best, dreaming with no end in sight.
I know it’s grace and I do not take this gift of writing grants lightly. I still don’t know how I will present it to the world, how I will reach folks too with simple strategies that allow me to keep writing and writing especially when the call speaks to my heart. I don’t write all the time and I do pass many that though tempting are not for me. But the ones I write, like the one I submitted today, keeps me speechless. There is a pattern to grant writing. I am learning that every day. There is an intake period, with key words from the call, that allow you to get into a zone. Once there, once you have a vision, once all the intersections and roadblocks are somewhat clear, once you know your collaborators and for me, your plans to execute something unbreakable and reliably yours, then you are on your way. All of this should also include plans to endure your dreams no matter the highs and lows, the periods of giving up and the periods of trying again. I call this finding your vice. I am open to whatever direction this takes me. Like the moon we saw tonight while driving home. My son asked if the moon would follow us home. I said yes. Like dreams they follow us everywhere. Like the moon, I am following my dreams. I know my vice. These days, I am full.
I went to a gathering today, to see how people that worked like me, celebrated their highs and light, rejoiced in the success of others, and smiled because we worked. I left knowing, that work is work. But can be more, like light, when it is not hidden, when it is surrounded by people who celebrate like you.
My son drew a picture of himself at school today. He was dressed in a blue cape and black pants. I asked if he was inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog given similarities in the shade of blue. He shared that it wasn’t but rather it was a picture of him with a cape full of precious jewels. There were nine of them scattered all over his cape and in all shades of colors from green to blue, brown to black and pink. I asked why jewels and not something else. He noted because jewels are his favorite rocks and he wanted to draw something he loved that was close to his heart. He is only five. This image is my keep for today as it’s a reminder to keep what you love, close to your heart.
For my son it’s jewels. They come in all shapes and colors but they are nevertheless precious to him and worth keeping close to his heart even if in the form of a cape. For me, these days it’s anything that allows me to serve, like my love for grant writing. Commitment to writing grants is a commitment to service. I rarely write grants for the glory. Sure the accolades are nice when they come. But more than anything, this idea of a grant being in service to others is what’s close to my heart. I don’t do it for the reward. The sleep at the end of sleepless nights are much better. I’m also not interested in whether it becomes an icing on the cake for my academic career or not, none of that is important. What moves me instead, is whether any of the grants I write can be of service to others.
I also expect them to fail and the failed ones are just as significant for the insights they add that in my opinion are often not ready to be judged by reviewers, but yet powerful. Imagine a sustainable marketplace for HIV prevention or defining what implementation success entails or even a sustainability scale for resource limited settings. Yes, those are some title of ideas in service of others that may never come to life but they continue to inspire me even though they failed.
My grants then for me are a site of service. It’s my most innovative, my most pioneering and often my most audacious work and to think that I do it for others, keeps me grounded. It’s that notion that allows me to juggle one grant at least every other month. The irony is that I may seem like I’m not busy. Kids will take up all my time, but wait till I get a vision for a grant in service to others with a deadline, and we’ll it will be written in a week or two. It won’t be perfect as then the editing begins, but they will have something close that will make editing either seamless or painful. Commitment to writing grants in this way is often not successful. It’s a competition after all and may the best grants win. Plus even if it fails, there is always another deadline and a commitment to make the grant better all because of the people it’s originally in service for.
I expect my grants to always be at odds with what mainstream folks want and well when you subscribe first to service, expect your grants to seek first to challenge and change anything the dominant ideology suggests should be the norm. It won’t be easy, but writing in this ways helps me to remain accountable to those that matter. It also opens my heart and mind to conditions that allow us to last beyond one or 5 years, conditions that honor what matters to you, conditions I keep close to my heart always, just like my son and his jewel covered cape. I will never dominate whether the grants succeed or fail. It was never the intent. Rather, with each success or failure, I look forward to asking the question over and over again; how can a grant be of service to you? These are the things I keep close to my heart with grant writing, like a set of jewel covered cape.
She said to me, Isioma, we have a problem. It’s been 15 months since these words were first uttered to me. I still remember them like yesterday. With all the pain those words caused, with all the anger and despair, we have been told only time will heal. Or trying running now and then. So I did. Today a perfect blue sky, the lightest of the color blue, glided my way as I ran through the pain of losing Angie to cervical cancer.
An innocent peace flooded my heart too. This run, something I haven’t done in awhile, was the gift I needed today. I thank the heavens for opening up. Rain, the softest of drops, fell along the way, as flowers, in perfect pink colors greeted my way. I fell into a trance and listen to the queen remind me of the spirit within. I listened and watched the heavens open, surely as rain turned to tears.
The past year has been trying. Cries, led to change, which led to moving on as if death had the final say always. Within my grief, I let words lead, some I never knew was within me, some I remain in awe off. Either way, a year of grief, is slowing turning around, slowly plowing our fears, even our audacious dreams, into change I never expected. Beyond your death, beyond your cervix that had the last word, beyond even these words I write, know that you will live. Angie, you will live and as sure as I run through this rain, so shall this pain, turn around for good. Your life, even in death, will be a gift to many.
I needed to go through hell once to understand my worth. Hell helped me find my vision for the next years and decades of my life. From time to time, attacks will come your way, and they are like an obligation, a desire for you to know struggle. In my hell, I kept coming back to Psalm 23, kept reading and re-reading the words ‘deepest darkness.’ Looked it up in dictionary and all of this was my hell:
Extending inward, outer limits, considerable distance, difficult to comprehend, mysterious, grave, lamentable, intensely immersed, below level of consciousness, the most intense part.
Hell will make you go deep and there will be darkness all around. But then I remember the words, ‘even if and through.’ Darkness will come. Hell too. But even if they come, go through. When you find yourself extending inward, go through. At your outer limits, sail through. At a considerable distance, move through. Even if difficult to comprehend, or mysterious, grave or lamentable, still pull through. If intensely immersed, push through. Whether below the level of consciousness or at the most intense part, dig through this with the knowledge that he is with you. His rod and staff protect you.
All of them, all those that prefer you dwell in hell will see you. They will see how you remain an honored guest. See your cup overflowing. See the goodness and mercy all around you too. That’s what awaits you when you push through the darkness. I did recently and my cup continues to overflows.